An exhibition celebrating the many illustrators inspired by classic Victorian fairy tale The Water-Babies.

Written by Charles Kingsley for his son Grenville, The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby has been capturing the imagination of readers (not all of them children) since 1862.

Following the adventures of a young chimney sweep who falls into a river and becomes part of a magical aquatic underworld, the story encompasses a surprising mix of themes. It is a didactic moral fable for children, but also a satirical strike at opponents of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution; it is a classic fairy tale and at the same time a polemic against contemporary child labour laws.

Throughout its long publication history, illustrators have brought their own individual styles and ideas to the tale. This exhibition brings many of these together and offers a fascinating insight into how The Water-Babies has inspired different artists over the years. The first edition of the book, after the story was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, had just two black and white illustrations by Noel Paton which are on display here. Then in 1885, the first fully illustrated edition appeared, and several of Edward Linley Sambourne’s original drawings and artist’s proofs are part of the collection.

Also included are Margaret Tarrant’s line drawings and beautiful watercolours for the 1908 edition, and work by Helen Jacobs (1935) and Harold Jones (1961). Of course, central to the exhibition are the stunning depictions of The Water-Babies created by William Heath Robinson himself for the edition of 1915.

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